Dutch author Marieke Nijkamp is known for writing gripping, incisive, bestselling fiction about weighty topics. Their debut, This Is Where It Ends, unfolds during a high school shooting, and the follow-up, Before I Let Go, deals with teenage grief, depression, and isolation. In Nijkamp’s new YA novel, At the End of Everything, the teen residents of Hope Juvenile Treatment Center in rural Arkansas must fend for themselves after a pandemic breaks out and the adults in charge abandon the facility. Nijkamp spoke with PW from their home in the Netherlands via Zoom regarding inclusivity, criminal justice reform, and Covid-19’s influence on this book, their life, and contemporary YA fiction to come.
Did Covid-19 inspire the circumstances of this book, or had you already conceived of the story when the pandemic hit?
I think a bit of both. My editor, my agent, and I started talking about the book in February 2020, so Covid had already hit, but the world hadn’t actually shut down yet.
Did the ensuing crisis influence the book’s plot?
It didn’t change the plot, as such, but it definitely gave me a far more immediate understanding of the main characters’ fears. There were elements of the story that were taken from headlines or stories I heard—mostly additional bits and pieces, like phone conversations [between inmates and their families] and news articles. Moments like one of the parents commenting on how their neighbor was visiting despite people in their house being ill were my way of dealing with the frustration of seeing that happen in real life. Moments, too, reflecting discussions about what will we do if ICUs get overrun completely, who will we shut out? Seeing how the world was talking about disabled people, specifically—I needed to at least acknowledge that in the book. And then, as the pandemic continued, I saw far too many situations where prisons were forgotten or under such strict quarantine and isolation rules that it was bordering on inhumane. That felt uncomfortably close to the book I was writing. I set out to write a book that was maybe slightly beyond realistic so it wouldn’t be too overwhelming, and I think as the last two years continued, it got closer to reality by virtue of many places in the world just not being able to handle Covid well.
What was it like to write about a pandemic while living through one?
The hardest part is that I was writing the book while I had Covid and was recovering from it. It was not easy escapism, but sometimes it helps to have a fictional world or context that allows you to deal with the emotions of hardship and trauma in a safer manner. I had deadlines for the book, but I could choose to step away from it when it got to be too much, so in that sense, it still felt like escapism.
The story is set at a juvenile detention center, and advocates for juvenile justice reform. What made you decide to tackle that particular topic?
It’s something I’ve been interested in for a while. I didn’t necessarily set out to write a book that went very in depth about it, but the more research I did and the closer I got to these characters, the more I realized that was actually at the heart of the book—the injustice and the unfairness. When we started talking about the book, I was just thinking of situations that are antithetical to [surviving] a pandemic. I wanted to explore a situation where the characters were physically incapable of social distancing, of keeping themselves safe, because they had nowhere else to go. So that was kind of the starting point. Like, this is an interesting tension; what can I do with it? And then when I properly dove into doing the research and reading up on the state of criminal justice, specifically juvenile criminal justice in times of Covid... God, it’s horrifying.
Turning this into a book demands that you take a position as a writer, and it’s something that I’ve been following ever since. It’s something that isn’t necessarily U.S.-specific, though I think elements of it are, but even today in the Netherlands there was discussion about an entire detention center being put in quarantine because of a Covid outbreak, and prisoners going on strike earlier this week because they were under such strict visitation rules. It’s something I think we should be more aware of, because it’s easy to feel like, oh, this group of people aren’t part of us. It’s so easy to “other” people. Hopefully, books like this can help humanize and remind us of our shared responsibility.
You founded DiversifYA and were a founding senior vice president of We Need Diverse Books. How do you define diversity, and why is this cause so important to you?
I’m trying to move away from talking about diversity and instead talk about inclusion. For me, it means creating a space where it’s possible for people of all kinds of backgrounds, specifically marginalized backgrounds, to be heard equally and be represented equally. And I think that’s important because the very basic answer is, that is what the world looks like, and our fiction, in so many cases, does not represent that. It may be seen by some people as neutral, but it’s actually as fictional as anything else. I think the fact that so many people aren’t represented well in media is incredibly harmful, both for one’s sense of self and for a broader sense of empathy. It’s important that we all do the work in trying to make the playing field a bit more equal.
And for me personally, it matters because I am a nonbinary disabled writer who, up until a few years ago, didn’t even have the word nonbinary to describe myself. I did not know that was a possibility, and it would have at least been helpful in terms of figuring out myself. There are quite a few books being published now with nonbinary main characters, as opposed to just a single one every year, and the same is true for queer characters, in general. It’s so important to show teens that this is a very normal way to be, to maybe give them the language to understand themselves better or to understand the people around them. The same holds true for disability, not so much in terms of language, but in terms of just being seen as fully human.
What are you working on now?
I am working on my next YA. I actually just had a conversation with my agent and editor earlier today about figuring out what the new normal will be like. I still sort of want to revert back to what normal was like two years ago, so I’m trying to wrap my mind around what the world will look like in two years. Two years ago, I definitely didn’t expect to be launching this book in the midst of a new Omicron spike; I naively thought the world would look slightly different. Building a contemporary YA from the ground up, it makes it feel so definitive to be like, “Oh yes, masking and quarantining and school’s out again because Covid or restrictions or all the teachers are ill.” It’s so weird to consider that, and make that part of the baseline. It will be very interesting to see what the media landscape will look like in about a year, year and a half, when everything has had time to settle down and be internalized. I honestly don’t know what to expect. I’ve been talking to my writer friends, and everyone is struggling with that. I feel like at this point it’s too all-encompassing to ignore completely, so it’s about finding the right balance, and that’s certainly a fun challenge.
I’ve also been working on my middle grade graphic novel, which should be out next year. It’s a fantasy inspired by Renaissance Italy, and that’s somehow easier. There are still a lot of things going wrong in that world, because it’s a book and stuff needs to happen, but that’s definitely my escapism right now.
At the End of Everything by Marieke Nijkamp. Sourcebooks Fire, $18.99 Jan. 25 ISBN 978-1-4926-7315-6